Seeking out original work in the found footage sub-genre is not an easy task; for all of the good efforts (The Blair Witch Project, both [REC] films, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Troll Hunter), there are countless cash-ins, dispassionate sequels and uninspired knock-offs, which only muddy the water and cynically stifle creativity. Changing the focal point from the horror genre to science fiction, then, is a smart choice by director Josh Trank for Chronicle, a shining example of how to do something different with what is fast becoming a rote gimmick.
Chronicle is a very different beast compared to the found footage fare based on jump scares and the notion of being constantly tethered to the protagonist. Beginning with a scene in which geeky young high schooler Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is accosted by his drunk father (Michael Kelly) – with Andrew recording the incident, presumably for the sake of evidence – we get a more probing and intimate insight into the characters from the outset than is true of even the genre’s best examples. This opening scene of abuse also starts the beginnings of a curious moral arc for our protagonist; suffering at home and a nobody at school, the gift of superhuman abilities is just what he needs to change his life.
How Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) obtain their gifts of invulnerability, telekinesis and flight in fact comes second to the more humanistic concerns of this film. We know little of their transformation, and the trio don’t discuss it at great length, as is probably a smart choice for a film barely running over 80 minutes, and as reflects sci-fi’s current unwritten trend for minimalism as far as expository explanations go.
Max Landis’ screenplay is instead keen to place a lens over an unconventional group of would-be super-humans; Trank’s odd yet clever pass through a high school with glimpses at the various social circles is indicative of Andrew’s alienation, a point nailed down when a bully steal the camera and fools around with it. Unobtrusively, this cements Andrew’s stature as an “undesirable” and why the superpowers are such a blessing to him. Smartly, Landis also draws attention to the absurdity of Andrew’s documenting every dispassionate event in his life, accentuated by consistently credible performances from the three relatively unknown lead actors. Their witty banter is engaging and often extremely, darkly funny, while the kids do with their powers what we as youngsters might, lifting up girl’s skirts, goofing around at the mall, and getting drunk and showing off.
It all takes a dark turn once the kids realise the destructive potential of their powers, and they are forced to consider the gravity of their predicament. The popular Matt and Steve appear more pragmatic about their gifts while Andrew, who has never been popular and never had control of his life before, sees it as an opportunity to reinvent himself, one which becomes more and more sinister – albeit sympathetic – as the film progresses. It all comes off as surprisingly authentic thanks to convincing work from the three leads, all relative unknowns, that is, except for Michael B. Jordan, who keen eyed viewers might recognise as Wallace from HBO’s The Wire.
The coverage through the lens itself is in the early stages never implausible; the initial accident occurs, and the camera is not switched on again until the next day, which feels true. Once the trio realise they have powers, the found footage gimmick then gets a smart update; the power of telekinesis allows them to float the camera at an arm’s length, giving the film a more cinematic feel without sacrificing the internal logic of the camera’s presence. One superbly-conceived scene has the kids experimenting with their flying abilities, all the while filming it, yet given the seeming lack of danger – and the understandable craving to document something so exceptional – it doesn’t feel forced. Admittedly this is something which wanes the further the film progresses, and Trank clambers to find inventive ways to document events; one has Matt talking to an on-again-off-again girlfriend, who for some reason has a camera pointing at her front door. Also, one incapacitated character incredulously still has a camera pointed at him from a hospital bed, which has a few possible explanations, none of which are overwhelmingly convincing. Later on, the film smartly cuts away to surveillance cameras to document the wider scale of the inevitable standoff.
There’s a thoughtfulness and intellect here that many similar films simply do not have; characters are given due attention and matter more than just about any other entry into the sub-genre. The domestic violence scenes are genuinely harrowing, and help ease us into a darker third act, which deploys loony action set-pieces via some exhilarating found footage and surveillance cameras. While these scenes do strain credibility as far as the protagonist’s ability to both fight and telekinetically control the camera, it is in its own way reflective of the youthful arrogance of the so-called “YouTube generation” and their incessant quest to document moments both ordinary and extraordinary in their lives. The sheer exhilaration of the final sequence should be enough to compensate for a stretch in believability.
Pleasantly ambiguous, even philosophical, in its closing moments, Chronicle represents an agreeable compromise between the values of effects-driven action and smart, character-fed drama. Delivering both in abundance, what we get is a remarkable calling card for director Josh Trank. Despite the low $15m budget, it’s a technically marvel, and even when the visual effects don’t quite convince, there is a deftness to his control of the camera that makes the idea – always more important than the robustness of the sprites – mostly work.
While it holds onto its “found footage” conceit a little too eagerly near the end, Chronicle is edgy, intelligent sci-fi, and as is uncommon for the sub-genre, has a strong regard for its characters.
Chronicle is in cinemas now.